As anyone who has read examples of my past writing can attest, I tend to focus a lot of my historical analysis pieces on the Hall of Fame. Today, I will divert myself from that path a little bit to argue my Hall of Fame case for a great in our generation whose contributions have been highly underrated: Scott Rolen.
A lot of words come to mind when discussing Rolen: grinder, a "veteran presence," scrappy, gritty. I hear these a lot. One thing I do not hear a lot, for whatever reason, is "great."
A quick look at his hitting numbers, for example, do not scream "great." In 14 seasons, and 7,382 PAs, Rolen currently sports a line of .284/.370/.498, with 283 HR, good for a 124 OPS+/128 wRC+ . His HR total is good for 146th all time, behind players like Garret Anderson and Miguel Tejada, and he has never led his league in any statistical category, from the "old school" categories of BA, RBI, and hits, to the more analytical categories of OPS, OPS+, and others. Sounds like a classic "good, not great" player, correct?
I disagree completely. His 128 wRC+ puts him in the same category rate-wise (albeit sans-full decline stage) as Paul Molitor and Tony Perez. Molitor, if you recall correctly, spent a good chunk of his career as a DH, while Perez spent over two-thirds of his career at first base. Rolen, on the other hand, has played every inning of his career at third base.
Positional differences, obviously, is not enough. While fangraphs approximates an average third baseman to be worth 1.5 WAR per 600 PA more valuable than an average defensive first baseman with the same batting numbers, this does not address the fact that Perez had a longer career. Heck, Perez is not even the issue here. The issue is Rolen.
Everyone's favorite new "quick reference" defensive statistic is UZR. Also, most everyone (myself included ) recognizes Adrian Beltre to be a fantastic defensive 3B. UZR reflects this, rating Beltre at +104.5 UZR at 3B since 2002, and a +13.9 UZR/150.
Scott Rolen? 102.1 UZR, 15.5 UZR/150.
I think most people would acknowledge that Rolen can flash leather. I doubt too many would think he is as good as Adrian Beltre.
Total Zone (which can be found on the player pages of Sean Smith's website ) is not quite as gung-ho over Rolen as UZR, but at +93 since 2002 (and +141 overall), it's close. The aforementioned Beltre is rated at +79 since 2002, and +96 overall. While I am not prepared to state that Rolen is a better defensive 3B than Beltre, any system that recognizes Beltre's elite abilities, and then also states Rolen shares said abilities, is a perfectly credible system to me.
So what we are left with is a good hitting, great fielding player at a position that is in the middle of the defensive spectrum, and we are tasked to determine his place in history. Once again, Sean Smith provides a great point of reference for us, which his top 500 positional listing. At 94, we find our subject, Scott Rolen. Behind him are, well, a lot of all-time greats.
One could argue that Rolen still needs to post good seasons to make it to The Hall. Fine. According to Rolen's fangraphs page , his CHONE projection rates him to be a +3.0 WAR player in 2010 (which is solidly above average). Even if Rolen breaks down rapidly (to the tune of +3.0, +2.0, and +1.0 seasons), that would push him up on Sean Smith's rankings to Brooks Robinson status.
Maybe he did not peak well enough? Peaks are important, but I would argue that Rolen had many outstanding seasons. According to his baseballprojection.com page, Rolen did not post a season of sub-4.0 WAR baseball from 1997-2004. 4.0 is usually considered the level of an all-star player. At age 34 in 2009, he posted a +4.8 (according to Sean Smith's system), yet another terrific season.
To further emphasize "excellence," one can use a "junk statistic" called WAE, or "Wins Above Excellence," calculated by subtracting four from every individual season's WAR total, and defaulting to zero if the number is less than four.
Using Sean Smith's WAR totals, Rolen's WAE clocks in at 19.9. The aforementioned Brooks Robinson? A WAE of 15.3. Looks to me that Rolen passes the "excellence" test.
I have already written that the Hall of Fame should measure players more about the way they help their team win, rather than the hype they generate. Fact of the matter is, Rolen is a great baseball player, and I hope when his name hits the ballot (perhaps in 2019? 2020?) that the BBWAA evaluates his career correctly.